Extremis leadership

Research in Extremis: Leading As If Your Life Depended On It

"Do you lead as if your life depended on it?"

That was the question recently posed by Col. Thomas A. Kolditz, Professor of Leadership at the Yale School of Management, to a group of visiting alumnae. Kolditz, a former instructor at West Point, does research on "Extremis Leadership", men and woman who lead others under life and death conditions. His research domain: combat soldiers in Afghanistan, 9/11 firefighters, free fall skydiving teams, FBI SWAT teams and others that lead in extreme environments.

Certainly, many of us in the lecture room had weathered extreme economic conditions since our days as grad students. We'd seen our share of recession, downsizings, bankruptcies, start ups, buyouts, career ups and downs. But leadership in life and death settings? Was this relevant? And what could we learn?

The room fell unusually silent as Kolditz opened his talk with the riveting video story of Army Specialist Channing Moss. While on patrol in Afghanistan in 2006, Moss was hit in a Taliban attack by a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) that lodged - while still live - in his pelvis. The video begins with Moss and his family years later discussing the event that saved his life. It then shows Dr. John Oh, a surgeon and graduate of West Point, discussing his decision to operate to remove the live explosive. We move to the combat operating room to see actual footage of the surgery team that saved Moss's life, including an army EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) member.

It is a story about an Extremis Leader and his team in action. The conversation that followed and a later review of Kolditz's research on Extremis Leaders offers much material for reflection. It lead me to five core things we can learn from Extremis Leaders.

1. Inherent motivation and positive focus.

Extremis Leaders are different. They operate under extreme conditions with extreme consequences at stake. Combat surgery, for example, provides a life and death frame that is different than most work. That unique adrenaline-driven environment creates an absolute need to focus on the task and mission at hand. In extremis settings, leaders often are involved in a dangerous activity - while also staying clearly focused on a mission. It is the job of all leaders to motivate people to work better and faster. But Extremis Leaders do not rely on a need to "motivate" people. They don't need to. Extremis Leaders know how to use the situation - the external environment - to provide clarity of focus, set forward direction, and achieve positive results.

"Negativity is a luxury one simply cannot afford....(Extremis) Leaders possess a calm demeanor and look outward to make sense of a shifting environment and find solutions for resilience." Extremis Leaders use external focus to control stress and adversity. "You can't use time and energy to complain about the environment that is trying to kill you. You simply have to fix it," Kolditz says. Or, said more simply, they "focus frustration and anger on a better way ahead."

2. Continuous learning from the environment.

Because of this need to adapt to one's environment or lose it all, Extremis Leaders embrace rapid, continuous learning from their environments. They are constantly scanning to adapt in order to address danger. Under extreme conditions, learning skills are heightened and attuned to external stimuli. A key source of learning for the Extremis Leader, as for all Leaders, is feedback. Much of this feedback is around the impact of their behavior.

"Leadership is influencing others with what they do, it is not about their position," Kolditz explains. As a professor, Kolditz stresses the need for an open, feedback-rich environment - a no-holds-barred approach to delivering both positive and developmental feedback (which he says should be delivered in a four to one ratio). Planned, open, and frequent feedback is a core of learning to "build a culture where everyone is a leader."

3. Competence to build trust.

Another key observation regarding Extremis Leaders is about competence. In the Extremis setting, competence is valued "way above everything else," and it is the core to building loyalty and trust. Dr. Oh executed a level of skill and ability that allowed him and his team to focus outward and perform under pressure. Kolditz explains that the link between competence and trust is not developed overnight. It is interpersonal capital built over time. Moreover, a leader's competence breeds competence in others.

"Leaders in a crisis make people's hearts beat a little slower," Kolditz explains. This is due to the leader's outward display of competence which inspires others. Leaders in a crisis teach people to get outside themselves to fix what is threatening them, to focus on the challenge, learn all they can through rapid study of their environments and then take action.

4. Value of selflessness and shared risk.

Extremis Leaders often take on more risk than their followers. They build high levels of mutual trust and mutual loyalty between leaders and followers. This dynamic of mutual trust creates a shift away from self to others. Extremis Leaders deal with people's needs and requirements, especially being tuned to other's emotions over their own.

"Leader control is lost when people begin to display the unmistakable indicators of self focus: weakening the group through posturing, finger pointing and the abrogation of personal responsibility."

People are inspired by leaders who share their pain and who do not set themselves above others. They give more loyalty and trust to those who share pain and risk.

5. Controlling and managing emotions.

Extremis Leaders are transformational in that they provide optimism, hope and organizational stability, often where it is lacking. While transparency and honesty are important, perhaps the most difficult task of any leader, including the Extremis Leader, is to deny pessimism, and work to create the reality they wish to achieve, against the odds.

"We are not disciplined by ordinary events," Kolditz concludes. "It is easy to lead when things are going well." The real test is when we are up against the odds. It is then that our Extremis Leadership behavior needs to kick in, if not sooner.

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Amy Armitage is the director of member research programs at i4cp. Her team manages i4cp's Executive Leadership Development Exchange, an ongoing working group that studies best and next practices in leadership development.